Fayette County

Unsolved for 56 years. Inside the police file of Lexington’s most notorious cold case.

Detective Don Duckworth looked over the front of Betty Gail Brown’s car in October 1961 after Brown was found strangled inside her French Simca car in front of Old Morrison Hall at Transylvania University.
Detective Don Duckworth looked over the front of Betty Gail Brown’s car in October 1961 after Brown was found strangled inside her French Simca car in front of Old Morrison Hall at Transylvania University. Staff file photo

Quincy Brown put a heating pad in her 19-year-old daughter’s bed, then climbed in herself to do some light reading.

It was a chilly Oct. 26, and she didn’t want her only child coming home to a cold bed after a study session at Transylvania College.

Betty Gail Brown never got home that night in 1961, and her death is one of Lexington’s great unsolved mysteries and its oldest cold case.

The Brown investigative file, released by Lexington police under the Kentucky Open Records Act, shows that the investigation into her killing was doomed by starts and stops, leads that went nowhere and a confession that was full of holes.

The Brown case is the subject of attorney Robert G. Lawson’s new book, “Who Killed Betty Gail Brown? Murder, Mistrial, and Mystery.” Lawson will appear with his book at the Kentucky Book Fair on Nov. 18 at Alltech Arena.

This much is clear about the case of Betty Gail Brown: She was found in her little car in the driveway in front of Transylvania’s Old Morrison building early Oct. 27, 1961, strangled to death with her own bra. Police files say she left nearby Forrer Hall about midnight, died about 1 a.m. and was found strangled in her car about 3 a.m. by a Lexington policeman.

She hadn’t been raped. Her purse was untouched, her books and notes undisturbed. Her keys were slung into the back seat of her little French-made Simca car.

Beyond that, the case veers into chaos.

No one, even the man who confessed to the murder in 1965, had a motive. Betty Gail was a member of Phi Mu sorority at Transylvania. She was popular, studious, focused. She was a Sunday school teacher at Central Christian Church.

Brown, a commuter student who lived with her parents on Lackawanna Road, was supposed to be headed home about midnight Oct. 26. She had checked out of Forrer Hall, which had a housemother to make note of comings and goings. A witness said he saw her car headed south down Upper Street, maybe 10 minutes from home on Lackawanna Road.

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Betty Gail Brown, then a Lafayette High School student, during initiation of new National Honor Society members in November 1959. John C. Wyatt Lexington Herald-Leader Collections, Special Collections & Digital Programs, University of Kentucky Libraries.

But for some reason, though, she returned to campus. Was she alone? Was she forced? What led her to park in front of Old Morrison, when she had parked elsewhere for her study session?

Her mother, Quincy Stanton Brown, a local decorator and the sister of actor Harry Dean Stanton, knew that her daughter wouldn’t normally run so late, but she also never knew her to park in front of Old Morrison. Quincy Brown took three trips downtown to search for Betty Gail, but each time failed to turn into the Old Morrison driveway. On Quincy Brown’s third trip, she was stopped by a policeman, who told her that Betty Gail was dead.

Betty Gail Brown, a French major with doe eyes, clear skin and Breck Girl hair, became more famous in death than in life. Her killer became a mythological figure in Lexington, a kind of all-purpose boogeyman.

A man approached a woman standing beneath a tree on the Transylvania campus and proclaimed himself the “Transylvania strangler.” Another man pinned his wife to their trailer floor and threatened to give her the same treatment that Transylvania girl got. A cross-dressing male who had graduated from Transylvania and had moved to New York got a leering write-up in the newspaper as he was run through the grinder of suspects: “Shorn of his high heels, sheer silk stockings, grey bandanna, grey skirt, falsies and girdle,” the newspaper sneered.

In 1965, a man losing his battle with alcohol addiction confessed to the crime in Klamath Falls, Ore. His name was Alex Arnold, alias Don Eagle, alias Don Ringo, and he told quite a tale about the night Betty Gail Brown died.

While Arnold was in a Lexington jail awaiting trial, Quincy Brown came to see him. “You did not kill my daughter,” she told him, according to Arnold.

In fact, rumors had circulated that Quincy Brown herself had killed her daughter. She asked a neighbor about them, according to Lawson’s book, and was told they were given no credence.

Arnold’s trial in Lexington ended in a hung jury — seven for acquittal, five for conviction — and was declared a mistrial. Arnold recanted his confession during the trial. He said that maybe he had dreamt his scenario. Arnold was never tried again.

The case was marked “cleared by arrest.” It was never cleared by the court of public opinion; Lawson says in his book that he doesn’t think Arnold killed Betty Gail Brown, but he acknowledges that he might have.

Arnold’s confession said that he was drunk, and that wasn’t unusual. He claimed to have approached Brown’s car, where he said two women were making out, and asked for a light for his cigarette. Arnold said the two repeatedly “cussed” him, so he reached into the car on the drivers’ side, grabbed Brown’s hair and smashed her head into the dashboard, leaving a bloody stain.

The other girl fled, Arnold said, leaving him alone with the 98-pound Brown, who wasn’t even 5 feet tall. A woman’s Bulova watch was found nearby, although the police apparently didn’t consider it significant to the investigation.

Arnold claimed to have grabbed Brown’s bra and used it as a ligature to strangle her, bracing himself with a knee jammed against the back seat. Apparently Brown was already unconscious, because Arnold reported that her only reaction “was just (to) quiver a little bit.”

Afterward, he said, he got his first look at Brown — telling her, “what a cute little son of a bitch you are” — kissed her on the right breast, wiped for fingerprints and locked the car.

Arnold claimed that he then went to the nearby apartment of a friend named Mae Hedges. The two had a drink, he claimed, and he passed out on her couch. Hedges later disputed Arnold’s account.

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Lexington police Lt. Robert Robinson, left, escorted Alex Arnold Jr., out of the Fayette County courthouse in February 1965 after a hearing. Arnold had claimed that he killed Betty Gail Brown in October 1961. E. Martin Jessee John C. Wyatt Lexington Herald-Leader Collections, Special Collections & Digital Programs, University of Kentucky Libraries.

After Betty Gail Brown’s body was found, Lexington police took photos of the body, her neck at an impossible angle, the bloody dent in the top of Betty Gail’s head. She might have fought for her life: A photograph was taken of a broken fingernail on her left index finger.

Those photos, which graphically show the damage to Brown’s body, aren’t attached to the released file.

Brown’s clothing was cataloged: a light-beige silk shirt, a pair of gray and black walking shorts, a tan wool sweater, a pair of heavy white socks beneath brown oxfords, size 4 1/2 . Brown had been studying with friends for a biology test and had left the women’s dorm after the group broke up. She had worn the clothes all day, had had dinner with her parents, and then returned to the Transylvania campus.

The terror of her death dominated Lexington for years, reflecting the hysteria of the situation of a defenseless young woman attacked for no apparent reason very close to hundreds of college students: At visitation for Betty Gail at Kerr Brothers Funeral Home, a classmate cried out, “I know who did it, I know who did it.”

She didn’t know who had done it, after all. She told police she was just processing a theory.

Betty Gail Brown was buried at Blue Grass Memorial Gardens just over the county line in Jessamine County, off Harrodsburg Road.

The death continued to occupy Lexington’s imagination to the point that on Jan. 21, 1988, sergeant Fran Root sent a memo to then-Lt. John Bizzack, instructing him to get up to speed on the case information so that the department could handle future inquiries.

“It should be pointed out that none of the past inquiries have materialized into leads that have been substantiated,” Bizzack wrote. “It should also be pointed out that the case materials from this 1961 homicide lack sufficient documentation to determine whether some information was ever fully known or pursued during the 1961-63 investigation.”

He also wrote that “no consistent records were kept of assignments, follow-ups, directions, eliminations, possible suspects ... for future evaluation of the evidence.”

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The front page of the Oct. 28, 1961, Lexington Herald, containing the story of the killing of Transylvania College student Betty Gail Brown.

Then Bizzack made a stunning admission: None of the evidence introduced at Arnold’s trial was available for re-examination. It had all been destroyed, although he doesn’t note by whom. Bizzack added that Commonwealth Attorney’s Office archives “also fail to reflect the location, condition or existence of files, materials or evidence related to the case.”

“While the case may be classified as cleared by arrest under UCR (uniform crime report) standards, whether the murder is resolved is another question,” Bizzack concluded.

In 2006, Lexington police sought handprints and fingerprints from a California convict who they thought could have been associated with the case. Adolph Laudenberg had been charged in California in connection with four homicides from the 1970s, in which all the victims were female and all were strangled.

The prints were initially ruled inconclusive. Police also talked to Laudenberg’s wife but determined that she had no knowledge of the murder. They spoke with his brother and sister, but neither knew whether Laudenberg had lived in Lexington in 1961.

Finally, in 2012, the FBI confirmed that Laudenberg’s prints were not a match with prints found on Brown’s car. In 2015, the Kentucky state police forensic laboratory said the same thing.

Betty Gail Brown’s clothing was retrieved from an uncle in Florida in 2005 and was re-tested in an attempt to identify a DNA profile, which yielded no new leads. About the same time, police probed whether the Brown murder was related to a strangulation killing in Tallmadge, Ohio, in 1963. In 2008, police followed up on a frequent visitor to Betty Gail Brown’s grave who would have been 13 at the time of her death.

Arnold died June 18, 1980, at the Veterans Administration Hospital on Cooper Drive. The cause of death was listed as cirrhosis of the liver.

Fayette Circuit Judge George Barker, who was an assistant commonwealth’s attorney who assisted Donald Moloney in Arnold’s prosecution, told Bizzack, the police lieutenant, on Jan. 14, 1988 that he thought Arnold was responsible for the death, although he didn’t accept Arnold’s total narrative of the murder.

Right after her daughter’s killing, Quincy Brown told the newspaper that she didn’t want the killer to get the death penalty.

Her father, life insurance agent Hargus Brown, took a slightly different tack: “I want to let the law take its course. Even if he is never found, he will be punished by his conscience, but I want to see him caught — I’m afraid this could happen to another person.”

Hargus Brown died in 1990 in Brevard County, Florida. Quincy Alice Stanton Brown died in 2002 at age 81, also in Florida. Her cause of death was listed as an injury.

The Browns are buried at Blue Grass Memorial Gardens, near Betty Gail. The area, once rural, has filled up considerably since her death. Across the street is a shopping center anchored by a Kroger store; the cemetery itself bustles with families visiting their dead.

The mystery surrounding Betty Gail Brown’s death continues.

“No one, no relative, no friend, no acquaintance, no investigator, no lawyer, and no witness has ever provided anything resembling evidence of a motive for the killing of this young woman,” Lawson writes in his book. “And this above all else accounts for the fact that the question of who killed Betty Gail Brown has now been a baffling mystery for more than 50 years and is almost sure to remain that way forever.”

Cheryl Truman: 859-231-3202, @CherylTruman

If you go

The Lexington History Museum will present a LexHistory Talk on Who Killed Betty Brown: Murder, Mistrial and Mystery” by Robert G. Lawson, at 3 p.m. on Nov. 12. Eastside Branch of the Lexington Public Library, at Man o’ War Boulevard and Palumbo Drive.